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Institutional Confusion
Leaders must be mindful they don’t fall into the trap of “Institutional Confusion.”  Institutional confusion is a term I use to identify two mistakes leaders make that negatively impacts organizations. Institutional confusion occurs when priorities get shifted and “Preservation Mode” kicks in.  Preservation mode can be described as that moment when people, and particularly leaders, become so enamored with the institutions they serve that the institution itself becomes a sacred entity that must be “preserved” at all costs.  That’s a dangerous position to take.  In this brief article, I want to explore the two primary mistakes people make that lead to institutional confusion.

The first mistake leaders make is to confuse the functions of the institution with the vision and mission of the institution.  An organization may do a particular task well.  Executing tasks well is important however by becoming proficient at those tasks we become attached to them.  At some point in the organization’s life, those tasks may be exceptionally important for actualizing the vision and mission of the organization, however, how one actualizes the vision and mission may need to change.  Why an organization does something remains the same (i.e. if your vision and mission change you’re really not the same organization anymore) but what that looks like and how it’s executed can change, and at times, change drastically.  For example, an institution may exist to deliver the finest liberal arts education and create the most critically thinking and articulate citizens of the country.  In the past, they may have done that through small classes in which individuals dialogue with one another sharing ideas and informed opinions about the books they’ve read.  However, in this day and age, distance education has taken the place of many face to face conversations and the traditional lecture hall.  This university may have had the most exceptional lecturers and facilitated some of the boldest discussions of our time.   Yet, if no one is attending because another mode of course delivery is more accessible should leadership remain staunchly committed to how things have been done or should they find ways to fulfill their vision and mission in this new arena?  Being enamored with the task you do well can often leave you stuck and you may find you’re getting further and further from the vision and mission that gives your organization life.  This can happen because you like to do what you do well instead of being creative and embrace the new context in which your organization lives.  If this occurs you have to ask yourself if you’re more enamored with how good you look doing what you like to do or if the reason for doing what you do dictates a change in the processes used to actualize your vision and mission statements?

The second mistake leaders make is believing the survival of the institution takes precedence over the care of the people within it.  When it becomes more important to maintain the outer appearance of an institution rather than address any personnel issues we forget the most important capital of our organization is the people who make it up.  Institutions are not sacred, plain and simple.  Every time a religion, business, academic entity, or some other organized body of people say, “This institution is sacred and held above all other things” they risk the unsaid rule that “This institution is more important than those within it.”  Look at the recent news about the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, USA.  This story has been unfolding for decades albeit at different times and in different places all over the world with the same sad set of excuses for why this institution doesn’t protect the people it’s charged with protecting.  Why did the leaders of this religious institution allow predator pedophile priests to continue to make victims of young men and women without any serious penalty?  Why didn’t someone have the courage to say, “This is wrong and the people getting hurt need justice?”  We know why this institution has not handled itself well.  To do so would mean leadership would have to risk the reputation and the “sacredness” of the institution.  This institutional confusion is not unique to religious organizations, it happens in so many different institutions.  The irony of the situation is what makes the institution sacred and beyond reproach is the work the people within it do for the greater good identified in the mission and vision statements, not some superstitious belief that an organization is ordained to be some sacred power.  Business after business organization after organization forget if it weren’t for the people within its borders there would be no institution to take pride in.  People matter because only people can transcend their selfishness and become a community with others to work toward the actualization of the vision and mission of an institution.  With no people, there is no organization.

I think it’s imperative for leaders to work hard to avoid these two mistakes that culminate in institutional confusion.  Institutions are game changers not because of how they do something or because of an exalted past, rather they’re game changers because of why they do what they do and the people who make that reason for existence a reality.  Institutional confusion is the reverse of that very formula.  When leaders believe an institution is untouchable and more important than its people; when they believe how something is done is sacred and cannot change, you’re left with a dysfunctional organization primed for failure.  Nothing sets an organization down the path toward failure more than a faulty exalted sense of what they do and what they’ve become.  Perhaps this is where a little dose of institutional humility can make a difference.
"In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."
-From the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

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